The Moral Disloyalty
by Ashley Hullender
". . . And soon there would be the sun" (Faulkner 333). The optimistic tone in this statement is symbolic to a new beginning, a new day dawning to allow for a completely different life. Surprisingly, the hopeful attitude is described at the very end of William Faulknerís "Barn Burning" after "Sarty" Snopes has discovered and grieved his fatherís death for which the boy is responsible. In the story, Sarty has rushed to warn a future victim of his serial barn-burning father, Abner, when the barnís owner shoots and kills the criminal. Throughout the work, the reader is able to know Sartyís thoughts, and the boy is obviously devastatingly torn between choosing loyalty to his father or taking action to bring him to justice as shown when Sarty thinks of "being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses . . . " (Faulkner 327). During the whirlwind of confused emotions that Sarty experiencesĖincluding grief, guilt, and angerĖhe must slightly feel a sense of relief in knowing that he made the right decision in taking action that would fatally stop his fatherís act of arson. Faulknerís effort in demonstrating that a person is better off to choose morality over familiar loyalty, despite almost unbearable distress, is shown in the last scene of the story when Sarty recognizes his fatherís death as tragic but proceeds to move toward a better life. As painful as the boyís situation is, he forces himself forward, refusing to look back. The heart-wrenching emotions that the reader experiences are in response to knowing Sartyís feelings in the midst of his internal conflicts. When reading the story, one thinks, "Why? Why does this father of four children take such extreme action to respond to menial conflicts, and furthermore provoke emotional damage among his family members?" Perhaps the answer to such questions would be revealed along with many other dramatic differences in the story if "Barn Burning" were told from Abner Snopesí perspective rather than his ten year-old sonís.
One way that "Barn Burning" would differ if told from Abner Snopesí point of view is that the distraught father would be able to express his thoughts to the reader. One would imagine that his bizarre and harmful actions would be given the opportunity for Abnerís explanations and his perceived justifications. The reader would have the answer to the question, "Why?" For example, instead of knowing only the dialogue surrounding the event of Abnerís slapping Sarty for the fact that the boy "would have told [the courtís attendees]" (Faulkner 321), one would see Abnerís thoughts, and would be made aware of his mindís logical reasoning behind the abusive action. In his way of thinking, there may not have been another way to ensure Sartyís faithfulness to keeping the Snopes family secret regarding the fatherís repeated arsons. Perhaps Ab even thought this "discipline" necessary to avoid indicating an "erosion of his fatherly authority" (Johnston 199). Furthermore, if Abner were responsible for explaining the storyís events, his personal justifications for his burning barns would be clear. Assuming the reader could read Abnerís thoughts leading up to the barn burnings, one may discover a variety of possibilities. These might include explaining arson as his single plausible way to "take out his frustrations against the post-Civil War aristocracy" (Padgett 1). Maybe even Snopesí rationalizing his actions would be in response to being mistreated by others. The storyís details could embrace Abnerís thoughts that trigger the reactions to Mr. Harrisí retaining the hog in the twoís scuffle, as well as Major De Spainís insisting on Abnerís repayment for the damaged rug. One can assume that the one dollar that Mr. Harris required for reclaiming the hog, in addition to the "twenty bushels of corn against [his] crop" (Faulkner 327) demanded for repayment for the Majorís imported rug were beyond Snopesí poor financial means; however, the rationale behind his actions could only be reasoned by Abner himself. If narrated by Abner, "Barn Burning" would be drastically changed in its entirety, and one major difference would be in the ability to recognize the fatherís perspective by examining his thoughts and perceptions.
Another change that would occur in the story if it were told by Abner Snopes is that the reader would definitely not be as affected by Sartyís character. Since Sartyís perspective is the only one, it is easy to empathize with the boy and actually "feel" his emotions throughout the plotís unfolding. For example, when he contemplates about his father and the debate with De Spain, Sarty thinks, "Maybe he even wonít collect the twenty bushels. Maybe it will all add up and balance and vanish--corn, rug, fire; the terror and grief, the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses--gone, done with forever and ever" (Faulkner 327). When taking in the monologue, one is forced into an awareness of the ten year-oldís feelings of false hope, confusion, and despair. Not only are the boyís thoughts influential in coming to understand him, but they also play a large role in portraying Sarty as a victim of "unrelieved horror" (Fiedler 382) due to his fatherís poor decisions, as well as of actual abuse. During the time when Abner demands that Sarty go get some oil from the stable for the purpose of igniting the majorís barn, the boy frantically rushes to avoid any effects of his fatherís rage, telling himself, "I could keep on. I could run on and on and never look back, never need to see his face again. Only I canít. I canít" (Faulkner 330). There is a distinct sense of fear and hopelessness that is made obvious through Sartyís thoughts. Without the ability to experience what Sarty goes through, the reader would definitely not approach the level of intensity in feeling for the boy. In addition, if "Barn Burning" were told from Abnerís point of view, one may not even be exposed to the fact that his son does not stand behind him in reverent approval. While it is likely that one would feel a certain amount of pity for Sarty despite Abnerís perspective, what the reader understands about the boy would be dramatically different.
Another way that "Barn Burning" would differ if viewed from Abner Snopesí perspective is that the storyís descriptions and opinions of characters would change. Of course, as Sartyís point of view as the conspicuous one, the reader is presented with his interpretation of the characters surrounding himĖthe main one being his father. In the evening following the trial with Mr. Harris, Sarty details Abner as having "a wolf-like independence and even courage . . . which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity . . . a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his" (Faulkner 321).
Naturally, if Abner Snopesí view were the one expressed, he probably would not have described himself with these words. Abner also would have failed to weave into the story characteristics showing that he is "a man who is loyal to no one other than himself . . ." (Loges 43). In fact, detailed orientation on the fatherís qualities may not even appear if Abner were telling the story, since while Sarty is the depicter, there is no direct description of his own personality. Also, other family members would be portrayed differently if the story were within Abnerís scope instead of Sartyís. The son tells of his twin sisters as being sluggish and stolid, and "wearing only an expression of bovine interest" (Faulkner 331). The older brother is told of "chewing [tobacco] with [a] steady, curious, sidewise motion of cows" (Faulkner 330). It is apparent that Sarty produces his own personal opinions of his family members; but, were it Abnerís obligation to tell the story, a number of differences would occur when telling about the relatives. The father might detail his son and daughters in a completely different way, and perhaps mention each of their names, unlike Sartyís omission of them. Naturally, since "Barn Burning" is viewed from the sonís standpoint, the stated opinions and descriptions are distinctly his, and the characters would be portrayed very differently if described by Abner.
An additional way that "Barn Burning" would change if shifted from Sartyís to Abnerís point of view is that the plot itself would differ. Since Abner is not actually present when some of the story unfolds, the very events that occur would be altered, perhaps causing the most extreme and obvious of differences. For example, one of the most climatic points in the story occurs at a time when Abner Snopes is not present. When Sarty is left at home while Abner pursues burning Major De Spainís barn, the boyís family is instructed to prevent him from escaping from the house. However, Sarty fights himself free from his motherís grip by "jerking and wrenching . . . " (Faulkner 331), and then sets off to warn the major. The events of his running, warning De Spain, hearing the gunshots, realizing his father is dead, and grieving, are all experienced in Snopesí absence. Were the story told from Abnerís perspective, the reader would miss out on these critical occurrences. Instead, from Abner, the reader may hear about the fatherís planning the arson, wrestling with his conscience, or worrying about the sonís desire to betray him. In fact, one would experience the story only up until Abnerís death where it would end. There may be descriptions of what Snopes feels--emotionally and physically--but nothing after his final breath. Therefore, the most significant difference in the story would be the radical transformation of the plotís description if told from Abnerís point of view.
As stated earlier, an important difference that would result from Abnerís presenting "Barn Burning" is the fact that the reader would be able to know the fatherís thoughts and feelings. It is true that Snopes would be given the opportunity to explain and justify his actions. Nevertheless, it is probable that it would be nearly impossible for Abnerís rationalizing to strike a sympathetic chord with the reader. While one would be given an exposure to the reasoning behind Abnerís behavior, the manís explanations for actions like hitting his child and setting barns ablaze would not keep a reader from knowing what is right or wrong. Actually, just the fact that Snopes would attempt to justify his crimes may cause one to become more outraged toward him. Abner would not be seen as a better person if he were the narrator of the story.
The point is that despite incredible differences in the portrayal of thoughts, feelings, descriptions, opinions, and events, the essence of "Barn Burning" would remain intact if the perspective were to shift from Sarty to Abner. The idea, expressed by Faulkner, of the importance of choosing morality over loyalty would remarkably stay the same, whether the story is told by the innocent victimized child or the criminal-minded father. After all, despite the emotions of grief and guilt, the underlying reactions to Sartyís role in Abnerís death are those of relief and justice. Amazingly, after an analysis of the numerous and extensive changes that would occur if the point of view were replaced by Abner Snopesí, "Barn Burning" would still push forth the truth that morality prevails.
Faulkner, William. "Barn Burning." First-Prize Stories 1919-1957:
from the O. Henry Memorial
Fiedler, Leslie A. "William Faulkner: An American Dickens."
William Faulkner: The Critical
Johnston, Kenneth G. "Time of Decline: Pickettís Charge and the
Broken Clock in Faulknerís ĎBarn
Loges, Max L. "Faulknerís ĎBarn Burning.í" Explicator 57.1 (1998): 43-45.
"The Moral Disloyalty" is an essay written by Ashley Hullender in Dr. Barbara Murrayís ENGL 1102 class in fall 2004 semester. At the time of this writing, Ms. Hullender was a sophomore. Ms. Hullender also appeared on the 2002 Deanís List.